Renouncing Iconoclasm


I have added a new quote to the sidebar of the blog – it is from an earlier posting:

We have to renounce iconoclasm. In so doing, we inherently set ourselves against certain forces within modernity. The truth is eschatological, that is, it lies in the future, but we also believe that this eschatological reality was incarnate in Christ, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. We do not oppose the future in embracing the Tradition we have received. We embrace the future that is coming in Truth, rather than the false utopias of modern man’s imagination.

There is a strange spirit of iconoclasm (the Greek for “icon smashing”) and it breaks out now and again across human history. It is not just a short period in Byzantine history successfully resisted by the Orthodox but a strange manifestation of human sin that has as its driving force and hence allurement, the claim that it is defending the honor of God.

The icon smashers are as varied as certain forms of Islam or certain forms of Puritanism (and some of its Protestant successors). Some icon smashers direct their attention to pictures or statues, per se, while others turn their attention to even ideological icons such as honoring certain days and holidays. Those Christians who rail against the date of Christmas belong to this latter group of iconoclasts.

What is striking to me is that iconoclasm has almost always accompanied revolutions. I suppose those who are destroying the old and replacing with the new have a certain drive to “cleanse” things. Thus during China’s Cultural Revolution, books, pictures, older faculty members, indeed a deeply terrifying array of unpredictable things and people became the objects of the movement’s iconoclasm. As in all of these revolutions – iconoclasm kills.

In Christian history the first recorded outbreak of iconoclasm was the period that gave the phenomenon the name – during the mid-Byzantine Empire. Like later incarnations of this spirit of destruction, the icons themselves were only one thing to be destroyed – those who sought to explain and defend them became objects of destruction as well. Thus we have the martyrs of the Iconoclast Heresy.

During the Protestant Reformation iconoclasm was a frequent traveler with the general theological reform itself. Thus statues, relics, furniture – all became objects of destruction (as well as people). Some of this was state sponsored (as was the original iconoclastic period). The logic of iconoclasm, however, cannot always be confined. Thus in the Reformation the logic of reform moved from destruction of images to destruction of the state (which was itself an icon of sorts). In Germany the result was the Peasants’ Revolt, which became so dangerous to the powers that be that even Martin Luther had to denounce it and bless the state’s bloody intervention.

In England the Reform that was first put in place by the state remained unsteady for over a hundred years. Eventually, the Puritan Reform (that only took the logic of Reform to its next step) began to smash images, behead kings, outlaw bishops, outlaw holidays, outlaw dancing (they were a fun lot). For ten years England was ruled by a bloody dictatorship that was as ruthless in its iconoclasm as any regime in history.

One of the difficulties of iconoclasm is its appeal to the idea of God. Images are smashed because they are considered an affront to God. And not just images, but certain ideas are smashed (burn the books and those who wrote them). There is a “righteousness” to the cause which refuses to accept anything other than complete obedience.

I do not write about iconoclasm entirely from the outside. I’ve been there – done that. The verse of Scripture that seemed most “iconoclastic” to me was in 2 Cor. (10:3-6):

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.

Of course, the verse is referring to sinful thoughts and uses (as is not unusual in St. Paul) martial imagery. That same imagery applied to the governing of a state (or a Church) can be quite dangerous. It is useful in the spiritual life, provided it is well-directed by a mature and generous guide.

The plain truth of the matter is that God is an icon-maker. He first made man “in His own image.” And in becoming man, the man he became is described as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The same God who gave the commandment to make no graven images, also commanded the making of the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, as well as the images of angels woven in the curtain of the Tabernacle. He commanded the making of the image of the serpent, lifted on a staff, that brought healing to all who looked on it (an Old Testament prefigurement of the crucified Christ).

In the better than 14 years I have known Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas (my bishop), I have heard him warn incessantly that the greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear.

There is a restraint that is inherently involved in offering honor. Orthodox Christian living requires that we know how to worship God with what is due to Him alone, but at the same time to know how to honor those things that are honorable without giving them what belong to God alone. It is easy to say “give honor to God alone,” but this is contrary to the Scriptures in which we are told to “give honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7 and also see Romans 12:10). We cannot honor God by destroying the very images He has created (and here I include the saints who could not be what they are but by God’s grace).

There is within iconoclasm, a spirit of hate and anger. Without them destruction would not be so easy. But it is also the case that such spirits are not of God – though they are easily attributed to zeal or excused as exuberance. Iconoclasm is not the narrow way, but the wide path of destruction. It is easy to declare that all days are the same and that no days should be considered holier than others. It is easy to check out the historical pedigree of every feast of the Church and declare that some had pagan predecessors. Of course some had pagan predecessors – as did every last human being. If the Church has blessed a day and made it to be a day on which an action of Christ or an event in His life, or a saint of the Church is to be honored and remembered, then it is acting well within the Divine authority given it in Scripture (Matt. 18:18).

More importantly, we will grow more surely into the image of Christ by imitating his actions and learning to build up rather than to smash. Giving place to anger and the spirit of iconoclasm, in all its various guises, has never produced saints – but only destruction that has to eventually give way to something more sane. It is interesting that the Puritan reign in New England (as a matter of historical fact) was, by its third generation, weakening and looking for something different. The “Great Revivals” that swept through those places did not leave a lasting religious legacy other than the cults that sprang out of the “burnt-over district” in Upstate New York, and a growing secularization that sought freedom from the iconoclastic regime of its ancestors. Our modern American world is an inheritor of that secularization.

The only image that needs to be discarded is the one we have of ourselves as God. We are not Him. Worship God. Give honor to whom honor is due.

23 Responses to “Renouncing Iconoclasm”

  1. Michael Bauman Says:

    “Our modern American world is the inheritors of that secularization” The iconoclasm continues in its most destructive form ever with the attempt to destroy the only image left…humanity. Abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, animal “rights”, cyberization, even global warming fanaticism partakes of the the anti-human iconoclasm that is the fruit of defective theology.

    But is not iconoclasm inherent in Satan’s original hatred of us?

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    I would agree. When I think about it in the manner offered in this post, it is obvious to me that iconoclasm is not merely an historic phenomenon that Orthodoxy once dealt with, but is perennial, transcending cultures. It is a state of the heart – and a cold one at that – though it is frequently associated with religious justifications. It strikes me as interesting that abortion, euthanasia, and now homosexuality and other topics you mention are all deeply rooted in certain parts of the modern American Church, and are held as religious tenets. But as you have said, it is ultimately the destruction of man as the image of God that binds them together. It is little wonder that my Archbishop is constant in his warnings about the attack on the imago Dei.

  3. Michael Bauman Says:

    It is easy for me to look at such phenomenon as being external to me or the result of “western” mistakes. Clearly neither of those perceptions is entirely true.

    I recall a post of yours many moons ago in which you mentioned that you once (at least) in an absent minded state gave reverance to your wife as you would an icon. I thought then that such an act is equally as appropriate as the reverance we give to God through icons of wood and paint. Isn’t that what the kiss of peace really is?

  4. Gina Says:

    I’m struck by the busybody quality of iconoclasm. The Reformation iconoclasts were especially concerned with those images that had been “abused,” prayed before; nowadays you will often hear assertions that those venerating icons are committing idolatry. How is one to know that outside of being able to judge the worshipper’s heart?

  5. Michael Bauman Says:

    Gina, what a great way to put it, “busybody”. I really like that. I actually find quite a bit of the iconoclastic spirit in the ecumencial movement and their desire to reduce the expression of faith to the “essentials” so that we can all agree.

    I have recently learned that even the teachings of John Calvin have been essential to some on their road to salvation. A prospect which I would never have entertained prior to some of the posts I have read here.

    Perhaps iconoclasm is just idolatry in camoflage?

  6. Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Wednesday Highlights Says:

    […] Smashing icon is more common than we imagine. […]

  7. AR Says:

    Father Stephen, this is something that I feel I understand deeply. I have often described myself as someone to whom temptation usually comes in religious guise. This license to destroy in the name of purity is the one that most chilled me when I discovered it in myself. Now I refuse to join with image-breakers in their deeds, receiving the anger instead of dishing it out, and find it far preferrable.

    Michael Bauman, if it’s me you are referring to I should clarify that I never did read John Calvin. My teacher was Edwards. You must understand that if one is coming from present-day evangelicalism, Reformation theology is an older form of Christianity with more substance. The wave of young people going back to Reformed religion is in itself an anti-iconoclastic impulse – ironic to be sure but very real. We are afraid of the velocity of the dissolution of society around us and we are starting to regret our forefathers’ haste to constantly tear down and start over. None of us could stumble on Orthodoxy and simply say, “Oh, how true. I think I’ll do this.” We have to retrace the steps our forefathers took. Most of us get stuck at the wall of Catholicism because we can’t accept the authoritarianism involved in allegiance to the papacy or because we were raised with a terrible prejudice against it. That’s where Orthodoxy comes in…if you can find it and if you have the courage to go back far enough.

    There, now you’ve been told a little of someone else’s story but remember that you’ll never know the whole.

  8. Matt Says:

    AR: What you have described pretty much sums up my own conversion to Orthodoxy. I began as an Evangelical, moved back to the Reformation, and then, ironically, I think, partly through the influence of certain “ancient-future” sectors of the “emerging church” movement I moved back to the early Fathers. Although, based on my given name, I took St. Matthew the Evangelist as my name-saint, I believe St. Athanasius had a great deal to do with my finding the Church.

    Gina: “…nowadays you will often hear assertions that those venerating icons are committing idolatry. How is one to know that outside of being able to judge the worshipper’s heart?”

    The argument that I’ve been given is that the Commandment says, not to make graven images, and not to “bow down to them or worship them.” Therefore, the very act of bowing to an icon is a violation of the Commandment. This argument, of course, outright ignores any concept of a distinction between veneration and adoration, and it does so intentionally because it focuses on the action. “The Bible says, ‘don’t bow down’ and you’re bowing down; my argument is rock-solid.”

  9. fatherstephen Says:


    I think you’re right on target. The 7th council made clear the distinction between veneration and worship – a theological distinction based both on Scripture and the Church’s received experience. Those who refuse to accept this council, are setting themselves against the Tradition and choosing some other way of determining truth, that will be inherently flawed. I think in some ways, the 7th council is the absolute make or break between Orthodoxy and everything else.

  10. Canadian Says:

    AR said:
    “We are afraid of the velocity of the dissolution of society around us and we are starting to regret our forefathers’ haste to constantly tear down and start over.”

    For 23 years, I have been trying to sort through evangelicalism to find out what is true, biblical and apostolic but all you do is pick what you think is best from the smorgasbord of theology and find a table where folks are eating most of the same stuff. Then you call it a church or denomination. This is exhausting and frustrating. Reformation theology provided some stable footing but what ironically happened for me is that the temporary stability provided a vantage point to peer into history to see more clearly what came before.

    As far as bowing and praying to an image…..God instructed the Israelites in exile to “bow and pray toward the temple”.

  11. JimN Says:

    Father Stephen,

    I really appreciate this post! It addresses issues I have personally been dealing with, especially the disposition of my own heart. It reminds me of something F. Scott Fitzgerald said:

    “My generation of radicals and breakers-down never found anything to take the place of the old virtues of work and courage and the old graces of courtesy and politeness.”

    Your formulation, “Worship God. Give honor to whom honor is due” is very helpful to me.

    I wonder, though, as Christians who are supposed to owe our allegiance to God over the world, don’t we still need to be vigilant over idolatrous influences we might encounter? Put another way, when does attachment or adherence to something of the world become idolatry?

    For example, patriotism is beautiful and healthy, but what about the “My country right or wrong” doctrine? Isn’t this a direct challenge to the allegiance we owe to God? In other words (while avoiding specific examples which people might reasonably disagree about) wouldn’t it be a kind of idolatry to support the policies of a government which might be in direct contradiction with the Gospel, by using the My Country argument?

    A couple of other examples: What if someone professed an absolute faith in the power and purpose of the state to achieve social justice? Many Christians would see that as idolatrous. Also, what about Ron Paul’s “absolute faith in free markets and less government?” (, I mean, you can’t get any clearer than having an absolute faith in something other than God! What would Archbishop Dmitri say to people who place concerns of profit over needs of people, and justify it with free market thinking?

    Could certain social conventions of both the left and the right be considered idolatrous? Isn’t there also a valid Christian argument against supporting social conventions for their own sake, that social conventions which are unjust or dehumanizing (i.e. “an attack on man as the image of God”) are often followed out of a desire for respectability or conformity, and may ultimately be man-made anyway?

    It seems like there are a lot of gray areas. I think what you’re saying is, as in all things Orthodox, a pure heart is what counts. Self-examination is essential.

  12. fatherstephen Says:


    Well said. I think we have to be quite vigilant about such idolatries. The state has claimed much for itself in the modern world – far more than was every the case in the past. It’s one thing to believe your Pharoah is a god, it’s another thing to think that your government can make you live like a god.

    There are gray area. Where St. Paul actually says, “honor to whom honor is due,” is in the context of prayer for the Emperor, though it applies far more generally. To give proper honor to the state is correct. Knowing what proper honor is – that’s difficult.

  13. MuleChewingBriars Says:

    Orthodoxy does mean “proper glory”, does it not, Father? It doesn’t mean correct doctrine, although it implies that. It doesn’t primarily mean “correct worship”, although it does imply that. Above all else, the concept of giving everything and everyone the due and proper honor and dignity appeals to me far more than correctness of ideology and practice, although that cannot but follow.

  14. Matt Says:

    Father: I suppose that’d be why the 7th Ecumenical Council (I guess, technically, the return of the icons) is celebrated as “The Triumph of Orthodoxy.” 😉 Though, admittedly, I still don’t really understand why that is. I mean, the phrase almost sounds like it’s saying, “After the 7th Council, nothing else really happened,” though, certainly, the Church has had to combat heresies since?

    Canadian: Your comment brought to mind a thought regarding the current trend towards Reformed theology in many Evangelical circles (that I’ve run in, at least). Perhaps the trend is a result of modern (or, ‘post-modern’, whatever) people seeking a ground of stability in the shifting sands of Evangelicalism.

    Then again, it could be an anti-iconoclast movement, realizing the dangers of iconoclasm and returning to tradition. Or, it could be just another form of iconoclasm: smashing the Evangelical-Revivalist icons. Or, even more oddly, perhaps iconoclasm has, itself, become an icon of sorts, and therefore the next step of iconoclasm is to smash iconoclasm itself. Maybe it doesn’t make sense, but, then again…the French Revolution…

  15. Michael Bauman Says:

    Matt, your comment illustrates the ultimate end of the iconoclastic impluse–nothingess–nihilism. Unfortunately, iconoclasm runs deeply in the American psyche. The Puritans, the Non-Conformists, the Transcendetalists all were iconoclasts.

    As Fr. Stephen noted periods of intense iconoclasm often occur at times of revolution and other civil/cultural unrest. Iconoclasm is rebellion.

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    Technically, the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” represents not the 7th Council, but the final implementation of the Council’s decision and the return of the icons to the Churches.

    You are correct, the Church has always continued to deal with heresies, though after the 7th Council, they have generally been dealt with by local councils, then generally accepted through the rest of the Church, which was largely the pattern prior to the 1st Ecumenical Council.

    The 14th century councils on the Palamite Controversy are probably among the most significant. They were local, but have an acceptance that gives them the force of an Ecumenical Council within Orthodoxy.

    In the 20th Century, the Moscow Synod condemned the heresy of Sophiology, which caused Sergius Bulgakov in Paris to renounce his teachings on the subject.

    There have been local condemnations of “ecumenism” by the Synod of the ROCOR, that, I suppose, will have to undergo some process of general acceptance, which I would fully expect. The ecumenical movement of the mid-20th century quickly lost its focus and became a bureaucracy unto itself and a great scandal in Christianity. The energy in present day Orthodoxy is all moving in the direction of complete withdrawal from the Wordl Council of Churches, etc. At least as I see the winds blow. Such actions would tend to ratify ROCOR’s actions.

  17. Michael Bauman Says:

    Matt, think of the Synodikon of Orthodoxy that is proclaimed from the altar on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy:

    “As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the teachers have dogmatized, as the Universe has agreed, as Grace has shown forth, as Truth has revealed, as falsehood has been dissolved, as Wisdom has presented, as Christ awarded, thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach, Christ our true God, and honor His Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy icons, on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand, honoring the true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them vereration. This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe. Who is so great a God as our God? Thou our God Who alone doest wonders!”

    One of the hardest things I had to adjust to coming into the Church was the fact that time in the Church is not linear. Thus the Synodikon is/was not just a statement of the finite work of one particular Council, or the expression of joy at one particular event or moment in time, like with icons themselves, we are ushered into the Kingdom, still in the world but not of it. Surrounded by time yet no longer bound by it. Linear time is simply a measure of decay and death.

  18. David Says:

    For me iconoclasm was really about fear. I feared the power of beauty and the love of “things”. Beauty is in itself a most incorruptible account of God’s nature. But beauty can be used as a horrible tool of manipulation.

    Hans Urs von Balthasar (a non-Orthodox) gave me the hope to believe in beauty’s wedding to truth. From there it was a short jump to letting my heart love the Creator Incarnate.

    It’s easy to fear God’s power. Fear beauty’s power. Fear is easier than love. but perfect love drives out all fear.

  19. Ioannis Edward M Freeman Says:

    Iconoclasm reduces all noetic functions to bio-chemical and neuronic architectural pathways, such that a common mistake is to consider that the mind and the brain are the same. If neuro-imaging techniques to link emotion to neuroanatomy hold any truth, the truth is that the link is seldom questioned by scholars. It is as if what I can sense with my eyes exposes something that exists and the existence of this something is known because I can see it, and that anything seen does not require a theory to understand it. Such crass phenomenalism is synonymous with iconoclasm. Crass phenomenalism further drives a wedge between so-called modern science and relational faith such as an Orthodox Christian experiences in eating and drinking the Holy Meal. Last week I was in the GrossMuenster in Zurich where the iconoclasts raped and pillaged (speaking of anger, Father Stephen) to purify their faith in the 16th-century. Indeed, the faith was purified of anything but sentimentality and moralism, which held a community of Christians together, in true ecclesial coercive ways, with “ortho-thinking” and not “ortho-sensing.” The human senses became considered banal or the final word on everything, and the iconoclasts stripped the walls bare. A chill went down my spine again when viewing the denuded skin of church walls that had been chemically-cleansed and rid of the “holy.” The chill left me when I remembered the simple words, “Take and eat, this is my body.” I pray that we Orthodox might one day, too, become free of monophystism, but persistent false teachers concerning ascesis still try to hold us captive to an entirely transcendent God. Yet, there’s some good news floating about during the Nativity: the Word really did become flesh, and humanity has been raised into God. Thank God.

  20. luciasclay Says:


    The Holy Icons are, frankly, the biggest stumbling block for me. As you may recall I’m coming from the evangelical nondenom protestant ( and occasionally a Baptist ).

    My wife, having read into the subject, has firmly declared herself an iconoclast. I am wrestling with the issue myself and have not settled it.

    I would ask what was the tradition handed down from the beginning. It seems that in the 7th council both sides made an appeal to the tradition of the church from the beginning.

    One thing I find interesting is the Coptic Church used icons for a long time, then had to deal with the iconoclasts itself. Then after the same time period it returned them in full as well. Since the Copts were not in communion with the Orthodox this is significant. It suggests the iconoclasts were not a movement within the Catholic ( in its historic sense of east + west combined ) church. Rather it was a movement outside the Church and impacting all seperate aspects of the church at once.

    I understand the idea that Luke was the first iconographer with his painting of Mary. I understand the idea of images in the catacombs. But I don’t really know much more than that about the role of icons in the church of the first few centuries.

    For me the key will be to understand, and accept, that the icons have been part of the faith from the beginning and not a later novel teaching that became accepted. Even if it was an early but not universally practiced thing would be ok.

    If you have time, Where can I go to get a well detailed examination of the role of icons in the church from the beginning through the 7th council ?

    Regards and Thanks,


  21. fatherstephen Says:

    Ouspensky’s The Theology of the Icon is the most comprehensive.

    Images are already defended in St. Basil the Great. I suppose if one is to reject veneration of icons as a development from outside Christianity, then you’d have to reject the Trinity, etc. Arius used Scripture, too. But St. Basil recognizes this as an Apostolic Tradition, and also has some to say theologically on the matter.

    Iconoclasm is largely unknown until the 7th century. There is no evidence of an early Christianity without icons.

    Indeed, the excavations at Dura Europa of a Synogogue, contemporary to early Christianity, show that synogogues were not without images, contrary to what most modern Protestants would imagine about 1st century Judaism.

    St. John of Damascus’ On the Holy Images is about as straightforward a defense as I know of and certainly recommend him.

    But if someone is going to be an iconoclast, then they need to get rid of all their images, including the family portrait (if one would actually want to be consistent on the wrong interpretation of the 2nd commandment).

    It’s odd that the God who spoke to Moses and gave the commandments, also gave directions for images (Cherubim, etc.) for the Tabernacle.

    As for the veneration of icons – it is necessary to understand worship and why veneration is quite another thing.

    Look at Ouspensky if you get the chance.

  22. luciasclay Says:


    Thanks for the Oespensky info. I will look into it.

    And yes, your point of having to also reject Trinity etc. if one goes down that road is completely valid. But its even worse than that as you’d also have to reevaluate the canon of scripture as well for the same reasons. Its not a road anyone should go down.

    I have been inoculated against truth by heresy and its not so simple to reverse the vaccine.

  23. ecollage Says:

    This was a nice interview you gave on the Archbishop when he fell asleep on Agios Phanarious.

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